In Miami, there's a place like El Oriental de Cuba on practically every corner and in every strip mall - a spot where neighborhood residents, beat cops, businessmen, and the occasional gringo tourists come for authentic Cuban specialities and tropical fruit drinks.
If you're looking for a Cuban fix here, you'll probably head to Jamaica Plain's El Oriental. The narrow space on the corner of Centre and Paul Gore streets (the sign calls it "la esquina del sabor," "the corner of flavor") has been a JP institution since the early '90s. A fire closed it in July 2005 (arson was suspected) and the restaurant reopened after major renovations and help from the neighborhood and city in October 2006.
One recent Sunday night, the space is full of families and groups of friends, both Latino and Anglo; on a weekday lunch visit, a uniformed police officer chats with patrons at one table while a silver-haired man in a suit conducts a meeting at another. Even on a winter day, storefront windows and photographs of Havana, some old black-and-whites and some newer ones in pastel hues, conjure warm, sea-scented breezes.
At dinner, one of our group, a native of Cuba, orders ropa vieja ($9.95), a large bowl of shredded beef in a rich broth with onions and red and green peppers. He announces that the dish tastes much like what he ate in Havana, except this one has more vegetables. A chicken version ($10.50) is equally savory.
Rice with octopus ($12.50) is a huge plate groaning with rice made slightly spicy with red pepper and liberally dotted with chunks of tender meat. Cuban food isn't usually hot, so this dish is a surprise. Owner Nobel ("Like the prize") Garcia, who is Cuban, says that while he offers many traditional dishes, the menu has been influenced by customers from Central and South America and other parts of the Caribbean.
For example, seafood stew with rice ($8.50 for a small, so big we can't imagine what a large would be), is flavored with fish stock and plenty of shrimp, octopus bits, and mussels. Cilantro garnishes the broth. "I know cilantro is Mexican," Garcia says, "but I love the flavor." There are also bottles of hot sauce on each table, something else you generally don't see.
Sirloin butt steak ($11.95) is a disappointingly bland, pallid piece of meat. A mound of caramelized onions covering the steak turns out to be the best part.
A long list of side dishes includes black beans ($1.95), which have a wonderful earthy flavor; fried yucca ($2.75), beautifully gold outside and soft inside, with a garlic mayonnaise; stuffed potato ($2), a softball of crisp fried mashed spuds stuffed with shredded chicken. Maduros and tostones ($1.95 each) are available as sides but come with most dinners. Tostones (twice-fried green plaintains) are crisp on the outside, tender inside, but lack salt. Maduros (fried sweet plantains), a particular favorite from my childhood in Miami, are not nearly sweet or soft enough on our first visit. The restaurant must have run out of very ripe plantains, essential to good maduros. Another time, maduros are sweet and tender, almost perfect.
Milkshakes with mango, guava, guanabana, mamey, and tamarind ($2.50 each) are so thick and rich, they could double as dessert. A sip of guanabana elicits "yummy" from two of us and "ew, Kaopectate" from another.
Desserts are made on the premises, and include a version of dulce de leche ($2), rice pudding ($2), guava shells filled with cream cheese ($2.75), and flan ($2). Flan is the winner ("It's Mayor Menino's favorite," Garcia says proudly), with a wonderful eggy, vanilla flavor and a beautiful caramelized sugar sauce.
There may be times this winter when you'll hop a plane to South Florida. But if you can't, warm your body and spirit at El Oriental de Cuba.